Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909
Silences is divided into two major parts of equal length: “Silences” and “Acerbs, Asides, Amulets. Exhumations, Sources, Deepenings, Roundings, Expansions.” Through essays, quotations, and comments, Tillie Olsen presents the history of both well-known and obscure literary figures, stressing how cultural injustices and inadequacies have deterred these and other individuals, especially women, from fulfilling their literary potential.
Part 1 consists of three essays. The first, “Silences in Literature,” was originally delivered from notes at a colloquium at the Radcliffe Institute in 1962, then edited from a taped transcription, and published in Harper’s Magazine in October, 1962. In it, Olsen discusses the various types of unnatural creative silences, the conditions for full functioning, and the results of inadequate time and energy.
The second essay in part 1, “One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century,” was first addressed to university literature teachers at a Modern Language Association Forum in 1971 and appeared in College English in October, 1972. Here, Olsen declares that in the twentieth century, for every four or five books written by a man, a woman writes one. Only one woman out of every twelve writers, however, receives recognition equivalent to that of her male peers. Why are so many more women than men silenced? Blaming history, attitudes, education, motherhood, the literary-critical establishment, and internalized literary gynophobia, she requests that teachers read, teach, criticize, and write about women writers, encouraging first-generation female writers so that gender equality will eventually result.
The final essay in part 1, “Rebecca Harding Davis: Her Life and Times,” appeared first in 1972 as an afterword for the Feminist Press reprint of Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills: Or, The Korl Woman (1861). Davis’ instant fame and acceptance by such figures as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson diminished significantly after she was married and had devoted her life to her family. Although she continued to write prolifically and profitably, she never gained her former literary stature, lacking the time and energy to do so. A forerunner of social realism unable to maintain her artistic greatness because of social and cultural attitudes and constraints regarding women, Davis remains important not only for Life in the Iron Mills but also for her contributions to American social history.
Part 2 of Silences also consists of three major sections, each a development of its counterpart in part 1. “Silences in Literature: II” relies primarily on brief quotes from well-known writers, upon which Olsen comments. She illustrates several factors, including poverty, religion, and lack of support from established writers, which have dispirited and silenced great writers, stressing that lesser writers are even more easily silenced. Unnatural silences result from censorship, politics, marginality, and substance abuse. Then she sets forth the conditions necessary for the full functioning of creativity, as shown through journals, letters, notebooks, and accounts of such major writers as Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf. Conditions include “constant toil,” “unconfined solitude,” and freedom from other labor; especially crucial is abundant time to feed one’s creative force, wait for it to develop, and be available to work whenever the creation ripens for expression.
Using entries from Woolf’s diary covering her creation of The Waves (1931), Olsen provides a detailed account of the unforced process of creativity. Quoting Conrad, Sherwood Anderson, and Hart Crane, Olsen illustrates the despair of writers who realize that they have not done their best work; she cites Katherine Ann Porter’s remark that talent does not always emerge: People “can be destroyed; they can be bent, distorted and completely crippled.” Finally, Olsen reveals that in 1976 only one hundred American writers earned enough to support themselves by their writing, and she quotes William Blake’s statement that contrary to popular belief, affluence is more conducive to artistic productivity than is poverty.
She then sings the blues regarding the social climate for modern writers, warning practicing writers to skip this depressing section. She speaks of such factors as the indifferent reading public, commercialism, and competition, asking what is wrong with a world which does not want people to do their best. Nevertheless, she stresses the importance of establishing a cooperative spirit among writers and quotes Porter’s advice to writers to pay no attention to editors’ and publishers’ debasing influences: “You are practicing an art and they are running a business and just keep this in mind.”
Olsen next concentrates on female writers in “The Writer-Woman: One Out of Twelve: II.” She notes that few women have created a large body of work, then comments on the historical discovery that the women portrayed in literature by male authors are far different from actual women. Tracing the gains in women’s literature, she reveals that two-thirds of the world’s illiterate are female and that only 6 percent of the authors taught in twentieth century literature classes in 223 undergraduate course offerings from 1970 to 1976 were female. She then explores the causes of such inequity and discusses the causes of women writers’ breakdowns and suicides. Concluding with a brief section considering the general question of stunted creativity in adults, Olsen talks about first-generation writers and notes special challenges for this emerging breed. She ends this section with a quote from Woolf: “English literature will survive if commoners and outsiders like ourselves make that country our own country.” To illustrate her points further, Olsen concludes Silences with a condensation of Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills, the story of a potential sculptor, Hugh Wolfe, destroyed by being born into the wrong social class.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421
Silences seeks to explore what Tillie Olsen terms “unnatural silences”—those circumstances that thwart the creative process and lead writers to delay, interrupt, abandon, and even forgo promising careers. Part 1 moves from a general discussion of debilitating influences through an analysis of the specific factors that disproportionately silence women writers. The section ends with a long interpretive account of the life and times of Rebecca Harding Davis that makes concrete Olsen’s contention that writers need a nurturing environment that affords them both a fullness of time and a totality of self if they are to prevent their work from being either compromised or abandoned altogether. Part 2, which is appropriately entitled “Acerbs, Asides, Amulets, Exhumations, Sources, Deepenings, Roundings, Expansions,” serves to ground and substantiate the arguments that Olsen has made in the first section of the book. To underscore the connection between the two sections, Olsen includes cross references in part 2 that point the reader to the relevant page(s) in part 1.
As her use of internal pointers makes clear and as Olsen acknowledges in her preface, Silences is not an orthodox volume of literary criticism. Instead, part 1 contains a compilation of previously published essays that are reinforced by what might best be termed the liner notes contained in part 2. The structure of the book, no less than the manner in which it is presented (part 1 is peppered with footnotes, while the pages in part 2 are punctuated by curious page breaks and liberal use of white space), underscores Olsen’s belief that writing is not only collaborative but also interactive. She makes no pretense of presenting a definitive analysis but rather invites readers to fill in the blank spaces that she has provided and to supplement the evidence that she cites with their own examples and experiences.
Not surprisingly, the more one studies the book, the more it begins to resemble a Möbius strip, a three-dimensional figure with a one-sided surface. Despite attempts by critics to divide neatly the various sections for analysis, the sections constantly loop back upon one another, reinforcing previously made observations and setting the stage for correlative points that follow. While there are three identifiable essays in part 1, none is complete until the reader has applied insights gained from the material in the remainder of the book that flesh out Olsen’s arguments. In a sense, Silences constitutes something of a sourcebook, a volume of materials intended to “rededicate and encourage” writers and to “expand the too sparse evidence on the relationship between circumstances and creation.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 218
To measure the impact of any individual or single work on the study of literature or women’s issues invites rebuttal. In the case of Tillie Olsen, however, at least part of the impact is documentable. Not only did the publication of Silences result in the rediscovery of works long out of print, including Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills: Or, The Korl Woman (1861; 1972), but it also goaded publishers and academics to reconsider works that they might have previously ignored or rejected as being outside of the mainstream.
Much of Olsen’s impact is not documentable. While one can cite Alice Walker’s reference in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983) to Olsen as one who has literally saved lives, one cannot document the number of writers (female and male) who have found a fellow traveler, a supporter, in her works and who have found in her prose the will to continue.
Despite the silences that dominate Olsen’s own productive years, she has given others a fresh context in which to assess both their own aspirations and the rather homogenous reading lists that have traditionally defined the literary tradition. She has also given them the resources (in the form of quotations and reading lists) to identify and study their predecessors and to learn from them.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 381
Faulkner, Mara. Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Following an introduction that explains her critical perspective, Faulkner advances a seamless analysis that integrates the many aspects of Olsen’s writings. Throughout the book, she presents Olsen as a beacon of hope, liberation, and challenge. Insights into and drawn from Silences inform the entire volume, but chapter 5 (“Language and Silence”) is especially pertinent to Olsen’s analysis of the unnatural silences that cross generational, class, and sexual boundaries.
Howe, Florence. “Literacy and Literature.” PLMA 89, no. 3 (May, 1974): 433-441. Howe addresses the importance of a diversified canon, citing studies and personal experiences that demonstrate the stultifying impact of male-biased reading materials on adolescents and college students. Her observations reinforce and provide a context in which to approach Silences.
Orr, Elaine Neil. Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Orr approaches Olsen’s work from a theological perspective that revolves around Olsen’s life-affirming vision and faith in transforming possibilities. Chapter 6, “When the Angel Gains a Voice,” is the most important chapter vis-à-vis Silences. It advances the argument that Olsen sees creativity as an expression of the sacred or holy.
Pearlman, Mickey, and Abby H. P. Werlock. Tillie Olsen. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Pearlman and Werlock set out to balance what they see as a sometimes overly adulatory treatment of Olsen’s work. The book contains a useful chronology that is followed by both a 1984 interview/essay and a biographical sketch. Their critique of Silences is weakened by a reliance on textual summary and secondary quotation, but they include both a useful bibliography and helpful footnotes.
Rose, Ellen Cronan. “Limning: Or, Why Tillie Writes.” The Hollins Critic 13, no. 2 (April, 1976): 1-13. Rose explores what she perceives to be a disparity between the aesthetic vision that shapes Olsen’s essay “Silences” as well as her fiction and the polemical tone that she perceives in “One of Twelve.” She suggests that Olsen has sacrificed her vision and understanding in support of a feminist rhetoric.
Shulman, Alix Kates. “Overcoming Silences: Teaching Writing for Women.” Harvard Educational Review 49, no. 4 (November, 1979): 527-533. Infusing her critique of Silences with her own experiences, Shulman concludes that the work functions as a multigenerational writers’ workshop through which trusted collaborators share revelatory experiences.
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